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The Bad Plus: Suspicious Activity?

Brian P. Lonergan By

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The Bad Plus: Suspicious Activity? The Bad Plus is nothing if not confounding. The trio exalts in ambiguity and delights in dodging definition. Its music at once conveys affected irony and honest intelligence, melodrama and real poignancy. It resists interpretation. But one thing is for certain: the Bad Plus has created one of the most original and unmistakable sounds in contemporary music.

The trio's third major-label album, Suspicious Activity?, will do little to quell the arguments the previous two have fueled in the jazz community. And though the approach here is not a radical departure from that on These Are the Vistas or Give, the music does advance the trio's adventurous conceptions of form and rhythmic variation.

"The Empire Strikes Backwards, a rollicking composition by drummer David King, is a standout not only on the album but also amid the trio's entire repertoire. Its jagged, jumping chord progression, dramatic shifts in tempo, and tempestuous crescendo typify the group's compositions. Bassist Reid Anderson's "Knows the Difference shows the trio's impressive ability to spin lengthy improvisations out of a small germ of melody and rhythm, while King's catchy "Anthem for the Earnest presents the group in full-on rock mode, recalling '80s Brit-pop.

The Bad Plus has enjoyed week-long runs at the Village Vanguard for a couple years now, the most recent being in late September. If confounding on record, something good happens to this music live—it's less flat, arising like a poem off the page when read aloud. In its opening set, the trio showcased the better tracks from Suspicious Activity?, along with older gems like the exuberant "1972 Bronze Medalist. The musicians showed a mastery of irregular, tricky forms, with King especially displaying an agile, deft touch that doesn't quite come across on record.

The trio didn't play "(Theme from) Chariots of Fire, from the new record, which the adulating Vanguard crowd would have eaten up—its grandiose chords that would make Vangelis proud laid over a looping, funky bass line. That's evidence that the members of the Bad Plus are not as interested in facile crowd-pleasing as they are their own quirky conceptions of improvisation.


Track Listing: Prehensile Dream; Anthem for the Earnest; Let Our Garden Grow; The Empire Strikes Backwards; Knows the Difference; Lost of Love; Rhinoceros Is My Profession; O.G. (Original Gentleman); (Theme from) Chariots of Fire; Forces.

Personnel: Ethan Iverson: piano; Reid Anderson: bass; David King: drums.

Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Columbia Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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